Rev. Rushdoony is President of Chalcedon, an educational organization dedicated to furthering Christian research and writing. He is author of numerous books and a frequent campus lecturer. This article is reprinted by permission from Chalcedon Report, May, 1973.
Thomas A. Kempis (1379-1471) wrote a devotional manual entitled On the Following (or Imitation) of Christ, said by some to be, after the Bible, the most widely read book in history. The title sums up the major cultural goal in the history of Western civilization, the attempt to create a social order in terms of Christ and Scripture. With the Renaissance, and then with the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, another cultural goal came into existence, the imitation of the non-working rich, royalty, or nobility. The object of envy and imitation became the idle classes, men beyond work, men who could live in contempt of monetary considerations, morality, and law. The rake and the dandy became heroes; they seemed to live a life without reckoning, and without a day of economic or religious judgment.
The beginning of the era of revolutions did not lead to a proletarianization of culture. Instead, the new classes in power began to imitate the vices of the old aristocracy and to flaunt their contempt of economics and religion as a means of proving that they had arrived. In France, from Louis XIV on, the court was marked by gambling on a massive scale, and sexual immorality. Nineteenth century France saw the new classes imitate royalty, and courtesans triumphed as never before. In Red China, the elite communist cadres put the old war lords to shame with their more systematic exploitation of women, their use of power to promote their idle fancies, and their childish and senseless pride.
Each new generation of leaders has imitated the older idle rich and have built houses, not in terms of convenience and utility, but as imitation palaces, and furnishings still are prized because they echo the ornate vulgarity of the Bourbon styles. The "proletarian art" of Marxist countries is officially required to imitate the older styles of royal Europe in the name of socialist realism, whereas non-Marxist art despises the same tradition in art because the middle classes borrowed and used it for a time Modern art strives instead for a new elitism which is non-utilitarian in a radical sense.
The Training of Gentlemen
In education, the goal on the part of the traditional scholar is the training of gentlemen. Witonski thus deplores the instrumentalism of American universities, where, "Instead of studying, say, Latin poetry, a student can study urban race relations, an instrumental course that will be of little use to him in the real world." (Peter Witonski: What Went Wrong With American Education, p. 112. New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House, 1973.) But of what "use" is Latin poetry "in the real world"? Witonski’s idea of a liberal education is hopelessly obsolete. A liberal education is an education in the art of freedom, of being a free man (liber meaning free), and Witonski, as an Oxford and Harvard scholar, has a view of freedom which is irrelevant to our world, and, in its own way, almost as worthless as courses in hotel management. The scholar as a member of the idle class, a man who is rather than does, is meaningless increasingly. The scholar who does seeks to imitate the "social relevancy" of agitators. The academic scholar thus has been unable to define himself in our era because he lacks a faith which makes for valid definition. This underscores his increasing irrelevance to the future in any constructive sense.
The styles of men and women in the age of aristocracy stressed clothing which made people useless for work. Women emphasized this by their hair-styles, shoes, and finger-nails: they were beyond work. The goal of most moderns is the same non-utilitarianism and the same lust for an aristocratic idleness. The hippies have also manifested the same contempt for the world of work: they drop out of study and work. They emphasize hand crafts and aristocratic arts as alone relevant to their cultural goals.
"The Puritan work ethic", as the antithesis of this imitation of the non-working or idle rich, has been especially under attack. In the 1920′s, as a boy in Detroit, one of the most remarkable facts was the pride of workers in automobile factories: they urged friends to take the guided tour through, for example, the Ford plant, to see the assembly line. Instead of boredom, there was a delight in the high volume of production and a boastfulness about what their work was doing to change the world. The reason for this attitude was the "Puritan work ethic." The increasing signs of boredom today mark not only the automobile workers but white collar workers, executives, intellectuals, and men in every area of work. The reason is a change of faith, the growth of a delight in idleness rather than work. Increasingly, men no longer live to work, but work in order to be able to play. The Playboy dream is to cultivate the appearance of being a member of the idle rich from college days on.
The idle rich were a reality, but always a sign of approaching death and collapse. The nobility of France, for example, became idle and useless when Louis XIV required their presence at court and stripped them of power to prevent revolts. As a growing bureaucracy took over, the monarchs themselves became idle and finally irrelevant. Today, because of the proletarianization of the dream of idleness, men of all classes are determined to make themselves irrelevant and to commit cultural suicide.
Imitating the Idleness, Not the Greatness, of the Rich
The hatred of capitalism is largely inspired by the old dream of imitating the nobility and royalty, not in their greatness, but in their decadence. The life style of the future requires, we are told, living in terms of fun and games. We are asked to despise mass production in favor of handcrafts, and to love the new morality rather than to obey God.
The rich have always been with us, as have the poor. The lines, historically, have been very sharply drawn. To the horror of the nobility, the Industrial Revolution not only created a new rich class, the industrialists and merchants, but it made good living cheap enough for the middle and lower classes. Capitalism undermined the old aristocracy and dramatically benefited the masses. As Hazlitt notes, "Before the Industrial Revolution the prevailing trades catered almost exclusively to the wants of the well-to-do. But mass production could succeed only by catering to the needs of the masses." (Henry Hazlitt: The Conquest of Poverty, p. 54. New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House, 1973.) The result was the rapid rise in the standard of living among all peoples in Western Europe.
A savage counter-attack came from the two major branches of the old aristocracy, the lords and the intellectuals. A series of "investigations" were launched in England to dredge up every case of capitalistic exploitation in order to build a case against the new class. Since no class is exempt from sin, such examples were found and publicized by both the lords and also by the intellectuals. (See F. A. Hayek, editor: Capitalism and the Historians. The University of Chicago Press, 1954.) Socialists and aristocrats made common cause in their hatred of the leveling influence of the free market. Karl Marx, by virtue of being an intellectual, entered the ranks of the aristocracy and married into the nobility. In The Communist Manifesto, he echoed the aristocratic hatred of the Industrial Revolution while admitting its revolutionary impact on the world. Marx charged, "The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his ‘natural superiors’, and has left no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment’." The bourgeoisie had replaced the old aristocracy, with its junior members, the intellectuals, with a new upper class, the producers, and Marx could not forgive them for that offense. While ready to admit the remarkable effects of industrialism, he took offense at its by-passing of the intellectual. He countered with an Hegelian dream in which the seduced masses, rejoicing in the new affluence, were offered even more affluence if only they followed the intellectuals as their philosopher-kings. One point Marx saw clearly. Power had belonged to the royalty and landed nobility, because, in the old order, they largely controlled property. This old aristocracy had made room for the intellectual; a Ph.D. had standing as a junior member of the aristocracy, and, if he were a Goethe or a Voltaire, with or without a degree he was an uncrowned king. That eminence had been shattered. Capitalistic production had created new and cheap property, good property, and even landed property was being taken over by the middle and lower classes with their new wealth. In The Communist Manifesto, Marx declared, "The distinguishing feature of Communism is not the abolition of property generally, but the abolition of bourgeois property…. In this sense, the theory of Communism may be summed up in the single sentence: "Abolition of private property…. Capital is therefore not a personal, it is a social power." Once, a feudal aristocracy had controlled this social power, property. Marx now proposed that a new feudal aristocracy, the dictatorship of the proletariat, the intellectual elite, control this social power. The Marxist "revolution" was the ultimate in counter-revolutionary thinking: it was aimed at undoing the effects of the Industrial Revolution.
In a variety of ways, the New Left continues in this reactionary, counter-revolutionary tradition. "Detroit" is a symbol of the hated mass producer. Production has polluted the world, the ecology people hold, ignorant of the greater pollution which preceded the Industrial Revolution, or of the times when the rivers of Europe were dead streams in a way beyond our present knowledge. The goal of the New Left is to sabotage the great seducer of the common man, production. Instead of realistic attempts at dealing with pollution, the "eco-freaks", the New Leftist exploiters of ecology and conservation, concentrate instead on destroying production. Through legislation and sabotage, production is hampered. Oil shortages are one result. The oil reserves in America alone are enormous, despite the statements to the contrary, but drilling is restricted, and new refineries are not built because of restrictions. Off-shore drilling has a remarkable record of safety; the Santa Barbara incident had overtones of sabotage. Today, guards are necessary on off-shore installations to prevent sabotage by groups who want to create destruction in order to make production anathema. It is the mark of the New Leftist aristocracy to despise mass production in the name of the masses, to hate an abundance which enables "the common man" to have as much as an intellectual. One well-paid university professor climaxed and concluded a long tirade against capitalism by declaring, "Do you realize that my plumber makes more money than I do?" This was the ultimate insult: the free market economy had given a plumber more money than a professor! The professor’s contempt of capitalistic materialism had a materialistic ring. In every age, disproportions have existed such as the professor cited, and in every society. They are not corrected by envy and mass suicide.
We see also a horror of abundance in the New Left and a desire to destroy abundance. The delight of the New Left in handcrafts is revealing. What they produce is sometimes good, sometimes crude and childish, but, in either case, it has for them the virtue of being a scarce product. Scarcity is prized and abundance is despised. There is a contempt in every area of the common and the abundant. For example, to have a lovely flower or shrub in one’s garden which grows and blooms readily is somehow despised and frowned upon. The idea is to coax growth out of something which does not do well in that locale. Achievement is not seen as beauty but as scarcity and exclusiveness. For many, a flower is not beautiful if it is common. In my university days, I heard professors on a few occasions ridicule the Californian’s affection for his state flower, the poppy. In those days, tens of thousands of acres were covered with poppies every spring. Since then, cultivation and the extension of farming into new areas has caused the poppy to recede. A student has told me that he has heard professors denounce the destruction of the California poppy by the extension of farming. This is typical: abundance is despised, and scarcity is prized, because only the elite can afford the scarce item.
To cite one more example among many, styles reflect the same hatred of that which all men can enjoy and the same lust for the aristocratic. The aristocratic in this definition is not the superior but rather the exclusive and the scarce. Whether the style is in dress or in a fad, as long as it is the mark of the avant garde, everybody is ready to imitate and adopt it. The imitation of the idle rich, the jet set or any other group, is a major passion. Is it chic to see a certain pornographic film, to favor homosexuals, or to adopt a style? Then all climb aboard the bandwagon of liberal or radical chic, hippy chic, or what have you. However, when it becomes popular, it perishes. Is everybody doing it? Then forget it. The imitation or the following of Christ had as its goal life. The imitation of the ideal of the idle rich, of aristocracy as imagined in the modern era, has as its goal irrelevance.
The privileged groups of the monarchist era in France had as their social goals and principles four things. First, they believed in inequality, however much they idolized Rousseau and his gospel of equality. It was an article of faith with them that some men are more equal than others. Second, they believed in the autonomy of the aristocracy; they were exempt, or should be, from the laws which bind common men. Third, they were "different" and hence could not be included in the body politic in the same way as other men.
Fourth, even though they had little power, they regarded the exercise of state power as their natural right. It is this heritage which the intellectuals and the New Left (as well as the Old Left) have largely adopted. It is a policy of studied irrelevance, and its only real power is, not to produce, but to destroy.
Another factor which has since been added is madness. The extent to which madness is a theme of importance in modern culture is rarely appreciated. Before Freud, the cultivation of new and aristocratic mental illnesses was already prominent. Psychoanalysis became an "in-thing" for a time for the self-styled elite. In fiction, television, and motion pictures, the subject of madness is a common one, and an appealing one to many. Mental illness is in fact systematically courted as a liberating process by sensitivity and encounter groups, and industry for a time recently worked to cultivate mental illness as though it offered a way to a higher status and health. This cultivation of mental illness is still a "growth industry", typical of the new, non-productive growth "industries" of our time. Gene Church and Conrad D. Carnes, in The Pit, A Group Encounter Defiled (New York: Outer-bridge & Layard, 1972), gives us an account of the kinds of depravity cultivated in the attempts to gain leadership and aristocracy through induced madness.
An age which despises production and abundance and pursues scarcity, idleness, and irrelevance will certainly gain all these things, and will destroy itself in the process. Scarcity is ahead, and irrelevance, and death as well. The age of the state, the world of humanistic man, is committing suicide. We will be hurt in that process, but it is also a forerunner of our deliverance. More than ever, we must work to re-establish our roots in the Biblical faith and order, to establish new schools and institutions to rebuild society.
In 1961, in the concluding paragraph of my book, Intellectual Schizophrenia, Culture, and Education, I wrote: "The end of an age is always a time of turmoil, war, economic catastrophe, cynicism, lawlessness, and distress. But it is also an era of heightened challenge and creativity, and of intense vitality. And because of the intensification of issues, and their world-wide scope, never has an era faced a more demanding and exciting crisis. This then above all else is the great and glorious era to live in, a time of opportunity, one requiring fresh and vigorous thinking, indeed a glorious time to be alive." More than ever, this is true today.